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Disgraced DiMasi is given 8 years

Judge calls former speaker’s fall from grace a ‘dream corrupted’

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 10, 2011

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Former Massachusetts House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was sentenced yesterday to eight years in federal prison for his conviction on political corruption charges, the longest federal sentence handed out to an elected official in Massachusetts history, climaxing a years-long scandal that had captivated the state’s political establishment.

DiMasi’s codefendant, Richard McDonough, a well-known State House lobbyist, was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking part in the conspiracy to help a software company win state contracts in exchange for kickbacks.

US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf called the sentence appropriate, saying he balanced the ages of both men, 66, and consideration for their families, against the fact that they had betrayed the public’s trust by orchestrating the criminal scheme.

The judge also said he was dismayed when DiMasi, seeking leniency before the sentencing order, had spoken of his rise from poor roots in the North End to become the state’s first Italian-American speaker. It was, the judge said, “a dream that’s been corrupted.’’

“You and Mr. McDonough devised a scheme to sell your office,’’ the judge told DiMasi, who was forced to stand as Wolf handed out the sentence. “You’re standing here today because you committed what I consider to be, what the law considers to be, a most serious crime.’’

Wolf asked that the Federal Bureau of Prisons send DiMasi to Fort Devens, allowing him to remain close to his wife, who is fighting breast cancer. DiMasi must serve two years of probation upon his release from prison and forfeit $65,000, the amount of money he directly received in the scheme.

McDonough must also serve two years of probation, forfeit the $250,000 he received, and pay a $50,000 fine.

Both men must report to prison by noon Nov. 16, although the judge is still considering whether they should be allowed to remain free pending an appeal.

Wolf’s sentence fell far below the sentencing guidelines he had calculated on Thursday, which allowed for DiMasi to be sentenced to 19 to 24 years and McDonough to 15 years.

But the judge - indicating from the beginning that he would not go as far as the guidelines allowed - also said he believes the sentence, which is longer than many issued in comparable cases, could serve as a deterrent to those seeking to sell their public office.

“Corruption has very real victims, generally, and in this case,’’ the judge said. “I find the [sentence] is sufficient, but no longer than necessary, to send the message’’ against corruption.

Prosecutors had asked that DiMasi serve 12 to 15 years in prison and McDonough 10 years, while defense lawyers say both men should have to serve no more than three years in prison.

Thomas Kiley, an attorney for DiMasi, would only say yesterday that, “a chapter is closed, we’re happy to be past it.’’

He said DiMasi will continue to contest the conviction in the appeals courts.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said outside the courthouse yesterday that while the sentence of 12 to 15 years that her office had recommended was suitable, DiMasi is still being held accountable for his crimes.

“Public corruption is a very, very serious crime, and it has a tremendous amount of impact on the citizens of this Commonwealth and the trust of the public,’’ Ortiz said. “The reality is that the core of this case was simply about how a high, powerful speaker of the House took kickbacks in exchange for using his political position to benefit himself and his friends.’’

Richard DesLauriers, FBI special agent in charge of the agency’s Boston office, added, “Public corruption is a very significant crime, which significantly erodes the public’s trust in honest and effective government. As such, we’re pleased that justice has been served in this case.’’

DiMasi and McDonough were convicted by a federal jury in June of conspiracy to defraud the United States and of honest services fraud - DiMasi was also convicted of extortion - for steering contracts toward Burlington company Cognos in exchange for kickbacks from a salesman. The company ultimately won two contracts totaling $17.5 million in 2006 and 2007.

A third codefendant, Richard Vitale, who had been accused of participating in the scheme to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to DiMasi, was acquitted of all charges.

A fourth man, former Cognos salesman Joseph P. Lally Jr., pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities in exchange for a sharply reduced jail sentence. He testified about the conspiracy and said he and his codefendants devised the plan to pay DiMasi for his help in securing the contracts for Cognos.

Lally is slated to be sentenced next month, and prosecutors said they may recommend he serve two to three years in prison.

The trial, lasting about seven weeks over May and June, exposed a seedy picture of behind-the-scenes dealings on Beacon Hill, with top state figures testifying on last-minute negotiations to secure the Cognos contracts. Governor Deval Patrick testified about DiMasi’s push for the software.

Yesterday, legislative leaders would not comment on the sentencing of DiMasi, a Democrat. The state Republican Party issued a statement saying, “The decision to sentence Sal DiMasi to 8 years in prison, while appropriate, will not repair the damage done to the people’s trust in state government any time soon. The people are rightly cynical that public service now means self-service.’’

In his remarks yesterday, Wolf said he was troubled by the fact that DiMasi was the third consecutive House speaker to be convicted in federal court. His predecessors were Thomas Finneran, who was convicted of obstruction of justice, and Charles Flaherty, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion. They did not serve prison sentences.

Wolf also expressed concern about some of the support DiMasi has received since his conviction, particularly from fellow legislators, arguing that their disregard for the jury’s verdict only erodes the public’s trust in the political system.

He said DiMasi promised to serve honorably at the State House, which he called the “Beacon on the Hill.’’

In his lengthy remarks, however, the judge said he took solace in the fact that, in the end, the system had worked. The state Office of the Inspector General initially discovered improprieties, the Globe published a series of stories exposing the deals, and the FBI launched an investigation.

“This case has been very dispiriting: It has demonstrated the occurrence of corruption in state government . . . it will undoubtedly heighten public cynicism regarding public officials in the short run,’’ the judge said. “But, however, I’d like to say the case also shows the system does work, and something can be done about corruption.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.